CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.

4 comments on “CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

  1. WORLDbytes says:

    Great article! Thought you may be interested in this – WORLDbytes is producing a documentary ‘Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact & works of CLR James’. The launch will be on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at the Kia Oval Surrey County Cricket Club, London. For more details check the following link http://www.wegottickets.com/event/243503. Feel free to share this info to friends who may be interested.

  2. animalizard says:

    Good analysis…but to be honest, with so much contemporary criticism of the weaponisation of rape in Syria etc, I would expect you to single this out as a unique form of torture which is a tool for postwar silence. Inflicted on either women or men, the user relies on silence codified in how we are socially structured to hide rape or sexual torture, rather than display it proudly as a war wound, as a symbolic symbol of duty and/or sacrifice. With rape, the scars are internalized, their invisibility respected.
    James, given his undertones of misogyny, would never have considered this.

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